Tuesday, 28 June 2016

My emotional response to the EU Referendum Result

I’m aware that I’ve been sharing a lot on Facebook and Twitter (and with anyone who’ll listen) about Brexit. Although I don’t wish to upset anyone (no really I don’t, although I’m aware I have), I plan to keep talking about it because, as many have already pointed out, it’s vitally important that we do. Here’s why.

Putting aside the practical implications on my own life and that of my peers (which are huge) my biggest heartbreak is a sense of disillusionment and a loss of identity. My whole life I’ve had relatives, ancestors, friends, students and colleagues from every different background imaginable; I’ve been to as much of the world (particularly Europe) as I could manage and been welcomed. I’ve always known the world was wider and richer than my own experiences, and sadly, often a lot crueller. I’ve felt a connectedness to something bigger, privileged to access its opportunities and a responsibility and compassion towards others less fortunate. I know I’m not alone in this.

That’s why, for me, the referendum result was so gutting, but it didn't entirely surprise me. I saw and felt it coming when I was back home: the rise in casual racism in everyday conversation; the unchecked xenophobia in mainstream media; the frankly disgustingly bigoted memes of Britain First being shared widely.

Then there were subtler things, such as political agendas that those of us in the public sector were asked [forced] to press at work. One in particular was promoting ‘British Values’, namely: tolerance, respect for law, democracy and civil liberty. Yes they are tenets we were proud to grow up with, but labelling them as purely 'British' and making them part of a 'counter terrorism' (Prevent) strategy was a polarising move which implied that they were something 'other' people had to be taught. What’s worse is that it felt like these agendas, like the referendum itself, were intended to win back votes of those who would otherwise have voted for UKIP or the BNP. (Vote for me! Look I’m doing something about those scary foreigners too; but to placate the lefties we’re calling it some form of therapy.) In the end, all it did was play into the Brexiters hands, by watering the already-sown seeds of xenophobia.

Meanwhile, the fields in which we operated became more fractured and contradictory in other ways. As an example, on the day our Prime Minister gave a speech which said achieving certain level of English would be mandatory for people that wanted to move to the UK, the Skills Funding Agency stopped ESOL Mandation Funding in further education.

Ironically this was all happening against the backdrop of having grown up being taught about how Britain had fought and won the fight against fascism and that this was some part of our heritage to be proud of. (The narrative of our national curriculum conveniently left out how many places we colonised before that, or at least how brutal the colonisation often was; singing 'Rule Brittania' only gave a sense of entitlement without consequences.) We wrote essays in GCSE History about the causes of WW2 and the dangers of dehumanising other races and blaming them for the problems of society. We studied the formation of the EU and learnt that, in its purest form, it was set up to safeguard against that ever happening again.

I always took those safeguards for granted. That’s why, while I'm not denying that aspects of mass migration and integration of different cultures can bring challenges, this has to be one of the biggest steps backwards of the last century. At best it feels like a collective choice to say, ‘let’s just opt out of trying’; while at its worst it’s been taken as an opportunity to stick two fingers up to tolerance and respect, in favour of downright cruelty. I'm not just mourning the uncertain future that the younger generation has been lumbered with; I'm grieving how quickly we have forgotten what the sacrifices of the past were really made for.

Having moved overseas three times I’ve known next to nothing but warmth and welcome every time (and I was moving out of choice and for adventure – I wasn’t forced to, as some are) and it’s made what could have been isolating and difficult experiences wonderful. Now I’m now watching in horror as the UK becomes a place where people from other countries (or indeed, from the UK, who just don’t happen to be white) cannot feel safe because it's ok to openly abuse people from different origins. There are already thousands of examples of the rise in racial abuse in the UK since the result was announced on Friday. Anyone on Facebook or Twitter will have seen Sarah Child’s Album , ‘Worrying Signs’ or the hashtag #PostRefRacism, and I hope that far more than 48% of those who read some of the anecdotes were disgusted. I’m aware that not all 17 million leave voters endorse this behaviour, much less enact it, but such bigotry doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there has been a direct correlation between the EU Referendum (both the lead up and the result) and these instances. The perpetrators feel legitimised, even if it wasn’t the intention of every voter, and these victims are people, not just collateral damage.

I have for years identified myself as both British and European. Today I am ashamed to be British and, apparently, soon to be no longer European.

The outpouring of hurt and heartbreak from the younger generation about this is a beacon of light. I just truly hope that the pain and anger doesn't become despondency. Please let’s keep talking, keep questioning and keep sticking up for those whom the referendum has made a lot more vulnerable; words and kindness are our most powerful tools against hate and division.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Stigma Fighters


Just a tiny update. I was approached (via Twitter) a few weeks ago by the lovely and inspiring Sarah Fader (@osnsmom) founder of Stigma Fighters, and asked to write an essay for them. I was delighted and, of course, said yes right away.

And then I wrote it and rewrote it and changed it and perfected it and submitted it late and... here it is:
Eve Ventures (Me!)

It's partially my story of OCD and partially a piece which explains OCD in more detail for people who don't know about it, in 1000 words (and then some).

Stigma Fighters is a fantastic not for profit organisation, which offers a platform for people to tell their stories of mental illness. It's really worth a look! There are hundreds of humbling, raw, beautiful and honest stories on there. It's great to be one of them.

Much love.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Mental Health and the Workplace

Hello readers. This is another slight digression from my usual patter, but bear with me because I want to get something off my chest (other than biscuit crumbs) and I promise to deliver Chapter 7 soon.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, because it’s been kept pretty quiet, but there’s an election coming up, and mental health has been one of its focuses. In particular, there has been a lot of emphasis in recent months on getting people with mental health problems back into work. As far back as December 2014, the government pledged £12 million to the cause. The Liberal Democrats have promised, if elected, to spend £25 million over the next three years on it. In fact, every manifesto from the major parties includes something about helping people, either with mental health problems or disabilities in general, into work.

Now, while I wholeheartedly agree that anyone, regardless of disability, should be supported to be able to work in a job or career they enjoy, what happens when the job itself becomes the reason someone is unwell? I have been mentally ill, on and off (but mostly on) for years; I have OCD and depression. I also have a job, and as such I am not the target of any of these campaigns because on paper there’s no problem to be solved here. But there is; because simply ‘being in work’ shouldn’t be the pot of gold at the end of the psychiatric rainbow. Surely, the goal is to be in work and remain well, and that’s where I’m having trouble at the moment.

I’m not talking about not getting enough fresh air because I’m stuck behind a desk all day, or being tired because of a long commute, or bloated and lethargic from a diet of whatever I can grab and eat on the go (though, doubtless, these things don’t help); I am referring to things that should not happen in the workplace, but that often do anyway, which are unpleasant and stressful for anyone, but can be extremely damaging for someone with a mental health problem. Because if these types of things are not even acknowledged, let alone addressed, the issue will remain circular and more and more people, who want to work and who can, will be faced with the same choice that I currently have: my job or my wellbeing? Or worse: my job or my life?

Four short months ago, I had an interview for a new role at work; it was more responsibility than I’d had before and meant giving up my other job to go full time, but I was excited about the position and the chance to bring in new ideas and practise skills I hadn’t used before. I’ve never been a confident person but I wrote an impassioned application letter, gave a strong presentation and a blinding interview (apparently).  Shortly afterwards, full of nerves and enthusiasm, I started the job. However, within a few weeks, my mood had crashed; my OCD, which I’d been managing well, was worsening; my budding confidence had shrivelled and been replaced with self-loathing; I was exhausted; and dangerous, unhelpful thought patterns were returning. At first I ignored the correlation between my change in work life and sudden mental nosedive, but as the pressure mounted at work, things continued to get worse and I’m now at a stage where I don’t know how much more I can take.

So what happened? Like I said, I’m not a confident person. Self-berating and mental illness have a symbiotic relationship in my brain; they feed off each other and work to reinforce the appallingly low opinion I have of myself. People who haven’t experienced it can never know the impact that such self-doubt has on a person, day to day. It affected my schooling, it affects all of my relationships, it affects the speed at which I can get ready and leave the house every day, and – yes – it can affect my ability to perform at work. Despite this, I flourished in my previous job. I started out in a junior position and gradually amassed more responsibility and was given more creative and strategic tasks to do. After four years, when I was updating my CV and reflecting on the role, I was shocked and impressed by how much I had achieved, particularly because had I known that the job would evolve in such a way, I’d never have applied for it because I just never believed I had the ability to do such things.

You might assume that this was because my mental health problems were milder then than they are now, but they weren’t; most of the time I was in that job, I was battling awful OCD 24/7 and suicidal ideation was a constant feature of my thoughts. Still, in spite of my foggy mind and inner voice telling me I was useless, I took on tasks of greater complexity and coped with a mounting workload and conflicting priorities as well as the sanest sane person in the land. (Well, not quite but I never entertained suicide as a viable alternative to going to work or pulled out handfuls of hair as a result of workplace conversations.)

In contrast, despite having a much better starting point in my current job (for the first time in my life I had begun to see myself as competent), I now find myself as low and as hopeless as I’ve ever been. My mornings are a blur of cold sweats and diarrhoea; my days are spent fighting back tears and forcing myself to concentrate through heart palpitations, intrusive thoughts and a self-critic telling me I’m a failure; and in the evenings, if I’m not still at work, I’m collapsed on the sofa, locked in rumination about the day’s events and tomorrow’s deadlines. I have things I’d like to be doing instead, but I can’t, I’m stuck. 

And I’ve realised something: it’s not the deadlines, the workload, the criticism or the existence of an appraisal system that mean I’m not coping; they’re an inevitable part of any job and provoke some anxiety in most people. It’s the uncompassionate and punitive culture of my current workplace that’s the problem. Because a heavy workload is bearable when you’re trusted and appreciated – it only becomes a millstone when somebody’s breathing down your neck and talking to you like you’re a naughty schoolchild who didn’t practise their spellings. And criticism is useful when it’s delivered with an acknowledgement of strength (or at least effort) and tips on how to improve, but hurtful and demotivating when it isn’t. And when taking ownership automatically equates to taking the blame, it’s hard to feel pride in one’s job and easy to feel worried.

Recently there was talk of organising staff awards as part of a celebration event, but it was cancelled because senior management decided they didn’t have the time or resources. Fair enough, but they always find time to reprimand people when they think it’s needed. When you work in a culture that focuses on mistakes, but never on successes, you begin to focus on your mistakes. It would knock anyone’s confidence, but if you’re already lacking in self-belief and have a tendency to obsess over your errors, it’s crushing.

Even the appraisal system at my current job is biased against somebody who suffers from a mental health problem. Among other things, a person’s manager rates them as A, B, C or D on having a ‘positive and can-do attitude’. I’ve been told in the past I was a ‘C’ because ‘sometimes you’re very positive and pro-active, but sometimes you’re negative’. Funnily enough, depression tends to have that effect on a person; judging somebody on their positivity when they’re depressed is like judging a footballer’s skills when they have a broken leg. So now if I’ve had a bad day and burst into tears or not managed to grin like a Cheshire cat as actions are heaped upon me in a meeting, I start to worry about how this will affect my scores when it’s time for the dreaded ‘A’ word. I used to like appraisals at my last job; they provided useful feedback, focused on what I’d achieved and offered clarity on what I was going to do next. Now they’re another source of anxiety.

These might all seem like little things, but it’s something every workplace should be wary of, because one in four people do have a mental illness and if more people are successfully helped back into work, then there will be more need than ever for workplaces to be understanding and aware of the impact that negative comments and poor treatment can have on someone with a mental health problem. Because while being shouted at in a meeting might cause my colleague to send a bitchy text about their boss or update their CV, I want to grab the nearest pair of scissors and self-harm in the toilets. And while some people fantasise about their next holiday when they’re struggling to meet their deadlines, my mind tends to wander down the ‘plan my suicide’ path (it’s well-worn unfortunately and sometimes I’m halfway down it before I’ve had time to rationalise). People, particularly managers who have a duty of care to their staff, shouldn’t make assumptions about how small or large the effect they have on someone else is. As the wise and lovely Claire Greaves (@mentalbattle) put it, in a recent blog about internet trolls: ‘it’s like throwing a grenade over a fence, you can’t see the damage, you don’t even know if it’s hit them, but it has the potential to be deadly.’ And sometimes people do kill themselves because of work; I knew someone who did.

A word which gets thrown around a lot at the moment is ‘resilience’; it’s often found lurking in campaigns about reducing stress related sickness absence, getting people back into work and reducing service users’ reliance on the NHS. In the hands of a skilled psychologist, or on a Scrabble board, it’s a potentially useful word. However in the wrong hands, it becomes part of a victim-blaming rhetoric. It can be used to imply that a person would be completely fine with workplace bullying or unreasonable demands if only they were more resilient. But treating somebody unkindly and assuming they can take it because they’re resilient is like burgling someone because you know they have insurance – it doesn’t make it OK. Secondly, I am not lacking in resilience, but the very nature of mental illness means that it makes even the most ‘resilient’ people vulnerable.

However, it’s not just because of people with mental health problems that work places should be more compassionate. Do other people, who don’t suffer from mental illnesses, cope better with unpleasant bosses, heavy workloads and caustic environments? I’m sure they do. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it alright to mistreat them, and it’s not the way to get the best out of anyone, keep people motivated and equip staff to do their jobs well. I didn’t swim in my previous job and sink in this one because my boss made adjustments for me there, which aren’t being made here. Yes, there were some things; being allowed to start later and finish later meant that when I struggled to leave the house on time because of OCD rituals, I didn’t also face anxiety about being in trouble for my tardiness. However, for the most part, she wasn’t making reasonable adjustments. She was just being reasonable. I was mentored through new tasks and aspects of my role with patience. I was given criticism on my work with useful explanations as to why it was wrong (not simply told that it was) and advice about how to make it better. Additional work was asked of me with an acknowledgement that it was extra work and thanks for taking it on, and deadlines were negotiated. Small, reasonable things such as this, as well as being beneficial for everyone, can be the difference between being able to stay in a particular job or not.

Because ultimately, people aren’t machines and while not everyone has a mental illness, everyone does have mental health. Yes – the person who made that mistake at work may have done so because they’re adjusting to a new medication, or the person who is fifteen minutes late might have had to check the house was secure several times before they left. But equally, the person who missed a deadline may have because too much was asked of them, or the person who forgot to do something might have just received some bad news. And the person who gets shouted at in a meeting might not go home to someone who tells them they’re lovely, so those words might be the only message they hear about themselves all day.

These things matter. For workplaces to be safe places for people with mental health problems and positive places for everyone, a little more compassion is needed.


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Chapter Six: The Thought That Ruined My Life – Part Two

In brace position

On the carpet where I crashed

There’s no oxygen

I’m in the process of taking things out of my suitcase; for a six night stay with the family I used to au-pair for I’ve exceeded my luggage allowance by 2kg (it’s years before I’ll learn to pack light). I’m kneeling down, trying not to hear the fireworks outside and not to think about Coin Eyes or plane crashes or the knives I used to hide, with a half-folded t-shirt in my hands when, with a bang, it happens.

“Stab the children.”

Wait… what? “Stab the children.” I shake my head fiercely, in horror, but it’s too late; I’ve thought it. My heart-rate quickens, vomit surges in my oesophagus, I grip the t-shirt and it becomes damp with sweat from my palms. Like a fire, the idea is spreading through my mind, destroying the rational thoughts which, moments ago, were its pillars. I try to put it out with “I don’t want to”; but this only has the effect of throwing oil over the thought and it explodes with more force than before. Now I can see myself stabbing them, over and over again. I double over and start chanting “no, no, no” in an attempt to erase the image from my imagination, but it’s no good. I’ve killed them.

I never really believed it was possible to be possessed by evil spirits, but this – surely – is the only explanation for what I’m experiencing. That or I’ve gone insane. Yes, maybe that’s it. I’m very, very ill and I don’t want to be. I bury my face into the t-shirt and start to sob. Crying feels wonderful and for a while it’s all I’m focused on. I even wonder, if I cry hard enough, if I can force the demonic ideas out through by eyes.

Eventually I am sufficiently calmed that I can start thinking rationally about this problem. “I won’t be their nanny this time, so I won’t be asked to look after them” I reason and relief washes over me. But the imp is still there – I haven’t cried it out after all: “I might sleep walk and do it.” Now that the initial shock is over, I’m ready with my answers: “I have never sleepwalked in my life” I think back to myself, triumphant. Finally I convince myself that I’ll be able to stop myself killing anyone in the night by drinking so much wine at dinner that I sleep too heavily to sleepwalk. I’ll also move the chair in front of the door, just in case, so that if I do try to leave my room it makes a noise which wakes everyone else up and then they’ll stop me. It might be ok after all.

By now I’m locked in a terrible dialogue with myself. I can stop myself from acting on this idea, but that doesn’t explain why I had it in the first place. I’m still curled up in a ball when the next thought comes: “I must be thinking this because I want to.” But I really don’t. Ever since I had the first thought I’ve been paralysed with fear. I start to chew the t-shirt as the awful truth about me unfolds. I always knew I wasn’t normal, that there was something wrong with me. What did those other kids say? – Freak, loony, weirdo. They were right. This is it. I’m a psychopath. I start to pray, “Please God, not this, not me, don’t let me hurt those children. I’m so sorry, I’m so so sorry for whatever I’ve done to deserve these thoughts; don’t punish them for my badness, or my family. Please.”

For a second I try to imagine actually really hurting someone, to see if I like the idea. I gag. This isn’t me. I can’t stand violence; I’m a vegan, I’m a pacifist, I can’t even bear to watch gory movies... And yet, for the last hour I’ve been thinking about stabbing children with kitchen knives and no matter how hard I try to make the thoughts go away, they won’t. It’s as if my mind wants them there. That must mean something. I can hardly breathe I’m so afraid. “Who am I?” I whisper.

I sit up. Around me, all is as it was an hour ago – the suitcase open; the bed roughly made; the pictures and ornaments in their places; the t-shirt in my hands, now crumpled and snotty. Only the fireworks outside have stopped and the unanswered question echoes in the silence.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Chapter Five: The Thought That Ruined My Life – Part One

Once there was a boy who was very excited about bonfire night; his dad had bought a lot of fireworks for a big party they were organising on the 5th November. “You’re not to touch these, Son” his dad told him, before putting them all in a big, black box on a high shelf the boy couldn’t reach. The boy looked up at that box every day, itching to take out one of the fireworks – just one – and light it. He’d seen his dad do it many times before, he knew how to do it without getting hurt, that you had to light it and then walk far away… if he could just climb on top of the kitchen surface and take one out, he’d be able to watch it soar into the air and burst into a thousand multi-coloured splinters with a satisfyingly loud bang…

Long story short, the boy did light one of the fireworks and it blew up in his face. He didn’t die but he got badly burnt and went blind in one eye.

I have no idea if that story is true – I hope not, poor little guy. It was a cautionary tale told to us in infant school assembly to make sure we didn’t play with matches or go too near the bonfire on fireworks night. It succeeded, at least in my case. I think primary school headteachers are discouraged from telling kids stories that will give them nightmares nowadays, but it was a regular occurrence when I was younger. The tale of the girl who got her face bitten off by a dog meant it was years before I wasn’t terrified of our canine friends. I’m not sure now if my headteacher was so shallow that all her morality tales ended with facial disfigurement as the worst possible consequence of misbehaviour, or if my own vanity means that these are the only ones I still remember. In any case, since the age of six I have been very wary of fireworks and, truthfully, I don’t much like them. On the few occasions I’ve attended a fireworks party, each time a firework has been set off, I have stared for ages afterwards at the place on the ground where it started, unable to trust that it really was harmless and that the danger has passed, as the bang echoes in my ears.

It is now July 4th 2009; I’m packing a suitcase and outside there are fireworks (we live near a US military base). I draw the curtains on them, but I can’t pretend not to hear them and they’re bothering me more than usual, perhaps because they mirror what’s happening in my head at the moment. For a while now, disturbing ideas have been erupting in my mind. Like fireworks, they’re impossible to ignore and I can never trust that they pose no threat so they never quite burn out.

It started a few months ago; a friend and I were talking about moving to Australia together. She was doing lots of research and speaking with great enthusiasm and I, while more laid back and happy to let her take the lead, was looking forward to it. I’d been there on holiday with my dad and loved it and had secretly entertained fantasies of moving to Ramsay Street and marrying an Australian since I could remember. Then one day, when I was thinking about what it would be like sharing a flat with Sasha and living in a hot city by the sea, it hit me: I was going to die. Not in 40 or 50 or 60 years time, but imminently. I had cancer – cervical probably – and it was already fatal. I couldn’t move to Australia now because if I did, I would never see my family again. Every night I wondered if I would wake up the next day and I cried myself to sleep – the guilt of knowing I was going to die and not telling anyone was awful. I lived day to day and refused even to make plans for more than a month in the future. I eventually told Sasha this and she dismissed my fears as ‘nerves’ and told me to go to the doctor to assuage them.

A cervical smear test and a blood test both came back with no alarming results and I was reassured for a day or so until I realised that I had a brain tumour. After that I was HIV positive; then I almost certainly had lymphoma. The HIV test came back negative and my GP didn’t think my glands were remotely swollen or that it was worth sending me for a brain scan when I had no obvious symptoms of a tumour, but still the idea smouldered away – I was dying of something.

Next I became worried about my dad – despite having very low cholesterol, the blood pressure of a 20 year old and being able to run a lot further than most people half his age, he was definitely about to have a heart attack. I just knew it. I would worry endlessly about the pressure he was under at work and every time he did something nice I cried with grief as if he had already died. I wanted to move out of home but I couldn’t because I wouldn’t be there for his final moments.

Then one weekend when I was going through my bookshelf, deciding what to give to a charity shop, another awful (and, frankly, bizarre) possibility occurred to me: someone might write to my mum anonymously and tell her all about my sex history. Before I’d had the chance to catch myself up and point out that nobody I knew had any motive to do such a thing, the idea had crashed over me a thousand times, like a giant wave over a rubber dinghy, and I was cringing with shame and embarrassment. In a panic, I inspected all the books on the bookshelf to make sure there wasn’t already a letter to her in one of them. For weeks I felt sick with anxiety as I checked the mail for suspicious-looking letters to her and watched her cautiously for any signs of distress or anger. I even wrote her a letter of apology, ready to send after she had read all about my “sordid” past, begging for forgiveness. That my parents were open minded where sex was concerned and that, in all honesty, my bedroom exploits had never been something out of a Jackie Collins novel, made no difference whatsoever to the power this idea had over me. It was going to happen and they would be devastated.

These thoughts – that started as tiny seeds, then spread like poison ivy through my mind – have been controlling me for months. They’re behind every conscious thought process and in my spare time, I sit in silence, turning them over. I veer between trying to convince myself that they’re ridiculous to searching for reassurance that they’re not true. As soon as one strange worry has been quelled another takes its place. I know that they’re irrational, but this just forces me to keep them secret and hate myself for believing them. Right now, as I’m packing for my holiday, I’m entertaining a new one about the plane crashing or being blown up.

I’m tired, I’m anxious, I’m insecure and I’m about to have the thought that will ruin my life. 

Wednesday, 31 December 2014


This is a detour from the narrative of this blog, but I wanted to share it. 


I slept badly almost every night when I was very small
I’d toss and turn and cry and fight and you’d hear me through the wall
You held my hand, sat by my bed and took away my fear
Stroked the hair upon my head and said the words ‘I’m here’
Now you’re the one who’s scared and frail and needs help with everything
I feed you and you look so pale, your eyes searching, your body thin
In my childhood many years ago “Granny” meant magic and glee
I was then too young to know how cruel old age could be
When Friday night was Granny Night, we watched old films and baked
Played board games to our heart’s delight, knitted and ate cake
You had a wooden button box and we used the spares as draughts
In the hall stood a big tall clock – when it made us jump you laughed
I recall bags of wool in every shade, the stories that you told
I remember all the clothes you made for me and for my dolls
Your breasts were large and pillow-like, your lap was strong and wide
Now you’re small and feather-light, you’re weak and you are tired
And I want us to look at photographs while you talk about the war
But you can’t sit or see or even laugh when you feel so ill and sore
So I try to make some idle chat and tell you about my job
But I can’t even seem to manage that as when I try to talk, I sob
So I hold your hand, sit by your bed, wipe away both of our tears
Kiss you on your tired old head and say the words ‘I’m here.’